The Suitcase and the Jar:
Travels with a Daughter’s Ashes by Becky Livingston
(Caitlin Press $24.95)

Review by Carys Cragg

Eighteen months after her daughter’s death, Becky Livingston set forth on a journey to continue her daughter Rachel’s dying wishes to keep travelling.
The Suitcase and the Jar: Travels with a Daughter’s Ashes takes us across the globe and the terrain of loss. From her family home in North Vancouver, Livingston goes to Mallorca (Spain), County Clare (Ireland), Zurich (Switzerland), Northumberland and Leicestershire (England), Bunbury, Melbourne, Launceston (Australia), Delhi (India); New York, Seattle and San Francisco.

We are asked to consider: Who am I without someone who is essential to my being? Where is home, when what I have come to know I no longer recognize?

Leaving her house and job, Livingston proceeds to scatter Rachel’s ashes wherever she goes, housesitting for one to seven weeks at a time, “skipping seasons, changing hemispheres.”

Interspersed throughout her travels, we move back in time, bearing witness through a mother’s eyes to the all-consuming destruction by cancer of her daughter’s body and mind at the age of 23. We witness Livingston as she experiences the kind of grief that “changes the narrative of your life” as she also recounts her fiancé’s death of a similar fate.

Livingston recalls how her ex-husband moved back into the home where their daughter was dying; and how these events affected her younger daughter, who later moved away. Alongside the description of Rachel dying, we also learn how “easy she was to love” and how she was always planning her next trip.

As Becky Livingston travels, friends and travellers are often naysayers, doubters, and judgers, telling her she “won’t find what [she’s] looking for in some far-off land.”

At its core, The Suitcase and the Jar is a contemplation on grieving itself. Readers may be reminded of Joan Didion’s non-linear, intensely introspective rumination on mothering and her daughter’s death in Blue Nights (2011), or perhaps Cheryl Strayed’s self-imposed hiking exile from her life to process her mother’s death in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (2012).

Scattered throughout the pages of The Suitcase and the Jar are fragments of Livingston’s grief as it morphs and evolves with each passing housesitting destination and every location at which she leaves a portion of Rachel’s ashes.

Livingston sometimes grapples with how she managed her daughter’s needs. “We snuggle them up, we talk baby-talk, hoping as we do to absorb some of their pain.” We share in the intimate and painful realities of a parent who has lost her child: “Nobody messes with a grieving mother,” she observes. Also: “No one knows what to do with a person like me.”

She describes moments that are brutally real, exquisitely painful, and authentic in a way that anyone who has lost someone close will immediately recognize.

Helping deepen the narrative, Livingston frequently refers to the music playing within particular memories and to books she has read that resonated in some way. She also quotes from poems (“Grief” by Stephen Dobyns, “Lost” by David Wagoner, “For the Traveller” by John O’Donohue). A list of “Books, Songs, and Poems” in the back pages, or available online, would be an added resource for the reader, because many works are referenced but not cited, likely for copyright reasons.

Back and forth, between past and present, the transitions are seamless. In one sentence, Livingston describes how her daughter liked to fly, and in the following paragraph, Livingston is waiting to board a plane. The constant movement from one continent to the next risks disorienting the reader, but Livingston anchors us with a repeating action: the scattering of her daughter’s ashes in yet-to-be-determined locations.

As Livingston lets go of the ashes, she lets go of her daughter, giving her to the world to carry forward. She likes to think that Rachel is “playing in the shifting sands, caught between your children’s toes or carried home in a castle-shaped pail. All of us carrying her away.”

At times, The Suitcase and the Jar reads as poetry. “Her ashes like asteroids pit the bleached sand.” Her 22 relatively short chapters contrast with one lengthy one. She frequently uses fragmented sentences — “My despair fully exposed… Just one more step … Keep going … Risk life for just one more day”—which mirror the fragile, contemplative nature of grief itself.

Livingston is both brave and imperfect as she both surrenders and re-takes control of her life after her world has turned unrecognizable. Livingston gives us such a nuanced and detailed picture of her journey that we can attach some piece of ourselves along her way and walk with her as she sets forth to re-establish who she is after a life-altering loss.

We gravitate to memoir for inspiration. In The Suitcase and the Jar, readers will find a quiet and comforting whisper, one that reminds us that, “If I could do this, I could do anything.” It is a devastating, poetic and ultimately beautiful meditation on living after loss.


Carys Cragg is the author of Dead Reckoning: How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father (Arsenal Pulp Press), a 2017 Globe & Mail Best 100 Book of the Year and 2018 Hubert Evans Nonfiction B.C. Book Prize finalist.